Wrong email address or username
Wrong email address or username
Incorrect verification code
back to top
Search tags: great-fiction
Load new posts () and activity
Like Reblog Comment
text 2015-03-10 18:11
Ramsey Campbell - Alone With the Horrors
Alone With the Horrors: The Great Short Fiction, 1961-1991 - Ramsey Campbell

Style is a curious thing in writing: the words we use, the tone of our voice, the images we create, the themes we love to explore. Every author has their own style, even though some don't realize it--indeed, it is those writers who are least aware of their style who will be dominated by its little vicissitudes.

We spend our whole careers cultivating our style, improving it--and yet, style is also a crutch, a limitation. As Bruce Lee observed: the best style is no style at all--to be able to move fluidly, unpredictably from one moment to the next, doing precisely what is required when it is required instead of falling back on tired old habits.

It is what we all would be, if we could: equal to any genre, any mood, any audience--but alas, far-flung ideals are not to be held in our meager grasp. Style develops not only through our strengths, but our weaknesses: through practice, we become increasingly aware of what we do well, and what trips us up, and we modify our style to take advantage of that.

Of course, it tends to become self-fulfilling, since the more you work within your area of comfort, the more skilled and specialized you become. Many authors who distinguished themselves by turning their years of knowledge and experience onto their preferred type of story end up stumbling awkwardly when they step outside of that, and discover that their chosen voice is not universally applicable. Style is always a trap--but it's also a necessity.

Campbell has the enviable reputation of being the 'greatest living horror writer', named a worthy successor to the likes of Lovecraft, Blackwood, Chambers, Bierce, Poe, and M.R. James. Certainly, he demonstrates an able pen here, but this collection is not the one to convince me that he belongs in the Pantheon of Terrors.

The lead story gets a pass, since it's the first one he ever submitted for publication--a plot-free mass of explanations and worldbuilding that apes the worst of Lovecraft's style. It inspiring for any writer to see just how far Campbell has come from these early roots, that he does eventually develop the ability to tell a story, and not a bad one.

However, unfortunately the key term in that compliment is 'a story'--almost all the tales in this collection could have been created by my patented Ramsey Campbell Story Generator:

John is a (Writer/Literary Agent/Publisher/Editor) and he likes (Jigsaw Puzzles/Hiking). His favorite music is (Bach/Mozart/Schubert). He has no children, no wife, no girlfriend--not really any family to speak of. He just doesn't really connect with people, he prefers to be alone. His few 'friends' are jerks who he avoids, when he can. He finds people on the street threatening--especially youths--though he always watches them from his window.

On the way home from work, he always has to walk by a dark and dingy (Underpass/Bus Shelter/Abandoned Building/Alleyway), lit only by the (Sodium/Mercury) light of the streetlamps. He heard that someone died there, once. He finds part of a dead (Cat/Pigeon), but the next day, it isn't there. In the shadows, he hears sounds like (Armor Clinking/Rustling/Scratching).

He tells himself it's 'probably (Old Papers/Bags/Rats/Birds)' making the sounds. He sees something in the shadows: a (Plastic Bag/Heap of Clothes/Pile of Trash)--at least it 'must be a (Bag/Heap/Pile)'. A little later, he realizes something is following him--probably the teens, he thinks, but no, it's something else. He tries to stay calm, but panics and runs, then slips and falls, hurting himself. He has a sudden, inexplicable revelation of just what this thing is, what's happening to him, and why.

He thinks for a moment he's gotten away--but no, it's right next to him. It's a lumpy hobo shape, its body the wrong shape for a person. It's reaching for him, making moist noises. As it closes in, he's thankful he can't see its face.

Now, this isn't a bad story--indeed, taken on its own, each story is perfectly good: well-written, well-structured--but that doesn't make it any more interesting to read it over a dozen times in a row with slight variations. It's almost as if Campbell is trying to refine a very specific, focused style--a one-story style, as we develop in the process of drafting and editing: ever focusing, tightening, improving--this collection provides an apt example for why we don't include all our early drafts alongside the final copy.

Now, there are a few stories that stand out, but not always in good ways. There is precisely one female narrator in the collection, but it's still the same story, just with a perspective shift: we still have our standard Campbell Protagonist, while the woman narrator seems to be one of his various jerk friends.

Tellingly, the woman is alone, like all of Campbell's narrators, but unlike the men, she doesn't prefer it that way, instead falling into the tired role of the old maid, desperate to make a connection, but too afraid to do so. She's also the only narrator allowed to survive, in the end--women are too delicate to kill off.

Otherwise, the women in the stories stick close to archetypes: they are either mother figures, nagging wives, sex objects, or witches. While the default villains are men (even when inhuman, they take the shapes of hobos), the female villains are all witches. Additionally, while the male threats seem to be evil and powerful unto themselves, the witches are portrayed as secondary, having power only through sexual relationships to men, a la the old 'Bride of Satan' trope, they are not evil objects themselves, but merely its subjects.

There are some cute novelty stories in the collection: an evil hack author, an evil story collection editor, an evil vacation slide show--which do help those individual stories stand out a bit more.

The oddest thing is that the last two stories in the collection are completely different from everything that came before: experimental, unpredictable, unusual--with variance in voice and tone that are estimable. To end such a repetitive book on an incongruous change felt almost like a punchline--though what the joke might be, I couldn't say.

Whatever it was that woke Campbell from his literary slumber, it should remind all of us of the necessity of being shaken up, driven from safe pastures and forced to fend for ourselves for a bit, to figure things out all over again. We never know when these moments will come, or where they will come from, but that is the other side of the coin when we are developing a style: first we labor narrowly, focus, recreate, rehash, perfect--and then we must be thrust outside of that, forced to come to terms again, lest we grow too complacent, too narrow in our view, too satisfied with what we have.

Whether Campbell deserves his laurels, this collection is not fit to demonstrate, but the fact that it does demonstrate growth is a good sign--I only wish the thing had been edited down more effectively--hitting the high points and leaving out the in-betweens, as a 'best of' collection should.

Like Reblog Comment
show activity (+)
review 2014-10-04 16:04
I laughed, I cried. Mostly I cried. Like, a lot.
The Fault in Our Stars - John Green

The Fault in Our Stars is an improbable story, but it doesn't feel like one when you're reading it. It feels exactly right.


Maybe it resonates so strongly because of my life as a sick child and then a sick adult who lost most of her sick friends in childhood. Our lives were more predictable because we didn't have cancer, which is unpredictable pretty much all the time, but we were still surprised sometimes. We loved each other and sometimes we fell in love and once in a while the person who died was the one who wasn't supposed to.


What I'm getting at is that it's really weird being a kid and having a mental list of which friends are supposed to die first. Green captures that feeling, all of those feelings, better than anyone I've read who wasn't somehow one of us. I was sure that he had lost a child or a sibling to cancer, right up the point in the acknowledgements where he says he didn't. It's that good.


So it's also that bad. I felt Hazel's pain and joy and fear so completely it was frightening, even as I was jealous of her strength. Hazel is a beautiful creature, as is Augustus, and their love is a privilege to witness. 


Bonus points to Green for making up a book for them to bond over rather than using an existing one and turning it into a half-assed lit class. That was a real stroke of genius and made their world all the more real for being wholly fictional.

Like Reblog Comment
review 2013-07-10 00:00
Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales From Great Fiction Writers - to find - thanks for the hattip Renee:O)
Like Reblog Comment
review 2013-05-30 00:00
Write Great Fiction - Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint
Write Great Fiction - Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint - Nancy Kress Eventually, reading books about how to write is just another way to put off writing. I've said before that I think I've exhausted what I can gain from such books, not because I'm now the best writer I can be (I'm not, or at least I hope I'm not) but because you have to learn by doing, not by reading about it.

That said, I begin to distinguish between writing advice books aimed at "beginning," "intermediate," and "advanced" writers. Though the latter is hypothetical - an "advanced" writer would presumably be someone already published or very close to it, and I have yet to find a book that I think might actually have something new to say to someone at that level. Advanced writers improve their writing by reading other great writers.

So where am I? I don't know - obviously I am not published yet, unless you count some fairly well-regarded RPG supplements. I like to think I am at least "intermediate." So Nancy Kress's Characters, Emotion, & Viewpoint is, I would say, an intermediate-level book. I picked it up because some critiques of my latest WIP were that the characters were not engaging enough.

As far as talking about how to make characters compelling and emotions more interesting and real, there was little in Kress's book that I didn't already "know." But there are a lot of useful discussions that would be good refreshers for any aspiring author to keep in mind.

Kress does delve into some very technical aspects of certain types of writing, which was useful, and she breaks down a few concepts into useful categories, which was also informative. For example, there is a chapter on humorous characters, and how hard it is to pull off humor in writing, the techniques that work, and the ones that don't. There are chapters on character description, motivations, emotion (several chapters on emotions), all written at a sophisticated level for the writer who already knows the basics and presumably is past making the most obvious blunders. (Kress still takes some time to warn against those: the "looking in the mirror" cheat to describe your character, the police blotter-style physical description, whipsaw emotional responses, etc.)

I was particularly interested in these four categories of protagonists:

• Characters who never change, neither in personality nor motivation. They are what they are, and they want what they want.
• Characters whose basic personality remains the same; they don't grow or change during the story. But what they want changes as the story progresses (“progressive motivation”).
• Characters who change throughout the story, although their motivation does not.
• Characters who change throughout the story and their motivation progresses.

I had always kind of assumed: "Well, of course a well-written protagonist changes — you want character growth!" And usually I will not like a book where the main character shows no growth, no change, no evidence that the story has really affected him or her. But there are static protagonists who work just fine: for example, James Bond. (Admittedly, not a particularly literary character.) And separating motivation and character is also useful.

Probably the most useful chapter, though, was the one on POV. Of course I already knew the difference between omniscient, close third person, multiple third person, and first and second person, and why head-hopping is bad, but Kress even breaks them down into even finer categories than that, and gives a pretty good discussion of the advantages and pitfalls of each.

Also, notably, while giving the "rules" for good writing, Kress cites plenty of examples of books that break the rules, and notes that yes, it's true, "badly written" books still get published and are best-sellers, and it's worth looking at what qualities those books possess that overcome their technical deficiencies.

So, I don't know that I got enough out of this book to improve my writing directly, but there were useful points to consider, and if you just like reading books about writing, this was a fairly dry but quite intelligent one.

I haven't read any of Nancy Kress's fiction, but will have to pick up something, as I always like to read some fiction by writers who write writing advice books.
Like Reblog Comment
review 2013-02-20 00:00
Great Tales of Science Fiction - Robert Silverberg,Martin H. Greenberg Contents:Mellonta Tauta - Edgar Allan PoeIn the Year 2889 - Jules VerneSold to Satan - Mark TwainThe New Accelerator - H.G. WellsFinis - Frank Lillie PollackAs Easy as A.B.C. - Rudyard KiplingDark Lot of One Saul - M.P. ShielR.U.R. - Karel CapekThe Tissue-Culture King - Julian HuxleyThe Metal Man - Jack WilliamsonThe Gostak and the Doshes - Miles J. BreuerAlas, All Thinking - Harry BatesThe Mad Moon - Stanley G. WeinbaumAs Never Was - P. Schuyler MillerDesertion - Clifford D. SimakThe Strange Case of John Kingman - Murray LeinsterMisbegotten Missionary - Isaac AsimovDune Roller - Julian MayWarm - Robert SheckleyA Bad Day for Sales - Fritz LeiberMan of Parts - H.L. GoldThe Man Who Came Early - Poul AndersonThe Burning of the Brain - Cordwainer SmithThe Men Who Murdered Mohammed - Alfred BesterThe Man Who Lost The Sea - Theodore SturgeonGoodlife - Fred SaberhagenThe Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World - Philip Jose FarmerGehenna - Barry N. MalzbergA Meeting With Medusa - Arthur C. ClarkePainwise - James Tiptree Jr.Nobody's Home - Joanna RussThink Only This of Me - Michael KurlandCapricorn Games - Robert SilverbergThe Author of the Acacia Seeds and Other Extracts From the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics - Ursula K. Le GuinDoing Lennon - Gregory Benford
More posts
Your Dashboard view:
Need help?